Intellectual Edges: Relating to the Radical

Matthew Gill


Setting the scene

My contribution to this unfolding conversation on ‘intellectual edges’[1] advances a radical proposition. By offering such a perspective, I aim to unpick and gently challenge the thinking on this matter that has been established by MAJGEN Ryan. I will examine the idea of the ‘intellectual edge’ in an alternative way, in an effort to open-up new possibilities that we have missed in our rush to give a type of functionality to our thinking. The radical proposition I will advance will be (for some) deeply uncomfortable because it will be abstract; it will not offer-up neat and concrete solutions to questions or problems. Instead, the proposition will be geared to do the opposite. It exists purely to challenge and destabilise our usual sensibilities. My proposition recasts the conditions on which we think about the ‘intellectual edge’ to expose the potential that we have otherwise overlooked.

I want to start by paying credit to MAJGEN Ryan, but also hint at what he has missed in his moves to develop the concept of an ‘intellectual edge’. Without doubt, MAJGEN Ryan has cut significant new ground. He has mobilised the ‘intellectual edge’ as a powerful idea that serves as both an imperative, and a key element of how we might understand the types of advantages needed in the course of our competitions in the twenty-first century and beyond. MAJGEN Ryan’s arguments are tight and well supported; he scaffolds his thinking on a system of logic that truly resonates. Indeed, I have cited MAJGEN Ryan’s arguments in my own challenges I have posed to senior players within Air Force about how our organisation might think about developing an “institutionally endorsed view of future military personnel”[2]. These challenges have been effective precisely because they have leveraged off the resonance that MAJGEN Ryan’s thinking allows.

However, my criticism of MAJGEN Ryan’s approach on the matter of the ‘intellectual edge’ is that his movement from the abstract to the concrete is rushed, and in doing so, he overlooks fundamental considerations. These considerations are of such importance that they must be unpicked. This can only be done by resisting the urge that comes naturally to us all to press towards the operative—our efforts to give fidelity to what an ‘intellectual edge’ must look like in practice. Instead, we must unpick these considerations by returning to the abstract and examine the ‘intellectual edge’ in its spatial terms.

My contribution is therefore a return to first principles.  A response to a question such as what is an ‘intellectual edge’?, offers a certain kind of indulgence into the world of the abstract. This is a rare opportunity for military professionals because it gives us license to shift our gaze away—if only for a moment—from the kind of rude pragmatism[3] that otherwise dominates the way that we are encouraged to think. Dealing in the abstract is deeply uncomfortable for many military professionals but it is a place that is powerful. In art especially, abstraction is the site of the avant-garde and holds a particular value: without an avant-garde, art cannot develop. Like an artist, I will ground my contribution in an abstracted form because I feel it offers a useful type of power to separate the enthusiastic readers of my article from the concrete contexts in which we ordinarily, habitually and often unquestionably apply thought. I am offering my readers a fleeting escape from the paradigm that we all know.

But let me be clear: situating my thinking this way does not deny the value of the very pragmatic and concrete world that we exist within everyday as military professionals. What I am offering, is an alternate way to re-examine this same concreteness.


The ‘intellectual edge’ in spatial terms

The ongoing discussion about the idea of the ‘intellectual edge’ immediately reveals an underlying logic that is at play. While we might ordinarily treat an edge (in the sense we usually use it) as a way of describing an advantage over an opponent (e.g. ‘blue has the edge on red in this game’ or ‘Australia must maintain a capability edge over its adversaries’) this use restricts the richness that is otherwise contained in the idea.  Rather, to begin talking about edges introduces spatial qualities to how we organise matters. These qualities are spatial in the way that they frame the operation and organisation of things in explicitly spatialised terms. These operations deal with the ‘insides’, ‘outsides’, ‘interiorities’, ‘exteriorities’ and ‘boundaries’ of things. When we talk about occupying an edge, what we are really describing is the processes of finding and sitting on the outer-most limits of something (an interiority) and gazing outwards. We are gazing into that which is other, that which is different. In this sense, militaries and states can be understood as a kind of interiority. The dominant ways that militaries think about things, give order to things and construct their systems of logic, all exist within an inside. They are contained. On the outside, lie the ways of thinking, and ways of treating reality that have not been incorporated into the inside.

When we shift our engagement towards an ‘intellectual edge’ in abstract and spatial terms, we can open-up this topic in new and profound ways.

To locate and occupy an ‘intellectual edge’ requires us to understand the kind of relations militaries have with the thinking that is ‘outside’. This ‘outside’ thinking refers to the ways of thinking that is of a nature that has not, or cannot easily be incorporated into the dominant, inside ways that militaries and states operate. Outside thinking pays no heed to the habitual logics of the military. Therefore, if militaries are to be serious in posing questions such as “what is the ‘intellectual edge’ and how do we treat it?” it becomes critical to be able to think in this more radical manner. Doing so also reveals a need for an honest and raw type of engagement with how militaries consider their relations to their outsides—how they relate to thinking that they have not been able to easily capture and subordinate. For example, to what degree are militaries open to engaging with thinking about events and affairs that is predicated on logics and ways of understanding reality built on fundamentally different assumptions to that used by the state? To what extent will a military be willing to acknowledge that particular treatments of reality, and particular logics create problems and severe limitations in our understanding? To what degree will a military be willing to expose these limitations—its own limitations—by entertaining the idea that the sense of reality it constructs and deals with might not be useful, and is built on deep assumptions that must instead be challenged?


Rethinking our relation to the radical

When MAJGEN Ryan talks about the ‘intellectual edge’, he has already shaped the discussion to sit within the habitual logics alive within the military. This is not to say that his arguments will be easily accepted by the military institution. I have no doubt that what he is proposing will surely challenge the current orthodoxy within militaries. However, I am arguing that the ways of thinking that MAJGEN Ryan sets-out, take ideas and technologies and use them to enhance and further develop what we already do. They extend the current logics we already have in place rather than pose the question of an alternate logic. MAJGEN Ryan’s approach is predicated on an engagement with our outside that is built on bringing difference to the inside, but then subordinating it to the orthodox ways that we see things. This has the illusion of announcing something that is new, but that is already prefigured in deep-seated, orthodox sensibilities. It becomes a type of dressing that pursues the idea of an advantage on a set of terms that risks leaving underlying problems and issues overlooked. MAJGEN Ryan’s approach is an effective way to think about the ‘intellectual edge’ precisely because it resonates and makes easy sense to connect to the concreteness that we are all conditioned to see. This is a treatment of the ‘intellectual edge’ that unfortunately misses the power and opportunities that might otherwise exist.

Without a reconsideration of these ideas, we fall into the same trappings that the pursuit of an ‘intellectual edge’ should otherwise liberate us from. By not becoming more comfortable working in the abstract, we introduce a dangerous type of paradox to our way of thinking.  This is certainly not what I imagine MAJGEN Ryan intended when giving form to the idea of the ‘intellectual edge’. Nonetheless, it is the consequence we are facing without thinking deeply of the kinds of relationships we want to build to that which is outside—to that which remains radical.




About the Author:

Matthew Gill is a Squadron Leader in the Royal Australian Air Force. Matthew is currently a Chief of Air Force Research Fellow at the Air Power Development Centre.

He loves a chat and can be reached through: matthew.gill1 [at]



[1] I will use inverted commas herein when I refer to the ‘intellectual edge’. This is done as a way of resisting normative connotations of the concept. I am particularly inspired by the writings of LTCOL Greg Colton and his caution about concepts losing their power when made operative as buzzwords.

Colton. G, ‘More than just a hashtag: the criticality of developing an Intellectual Edge’, The Forge, accessed electronically on 21 May 2020 through: < >.

[2] Ryan. M, (2020), ‘The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition’ Joint Force Quarterly, Vol. 96, Q1, National Defense University Press.

[3] This evocative term is attributed to Mr Peter Hunter–Director of Air Force Strategy.